Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers organized a trip down Colorado’s Yampa River in early June, to raise awareness about the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin (see interactive map). This post is the final in a four-part series about the trip.
Today, we float the remainder of the Yampa to where it joins the Green River at Echo Park. It’s a short stretch of mostly flat water and we decide to have a quiet float, no talking, to appreciate the river sounds and soak in our surroundings.
We listen to the birds and the breeze. The gentle creak of the oars, the dip and drip of the wooden blades in the water, the rub of a rubber sandal sole on a raft tube. The sunny canyon cliffs and ledges slide by.
Soon, Steamboat Rock is in view and we reach the confluence. This spot, where two rivers come together, is a special place. Confluences hold powerful energy, as two separate rivers become one, the waters mixing, forming a new river.
Here, the Yampa’s olive brown color combines with the much clearer Green River. The Green is different because Flaming Gorge Dam, built upstream on the Green in 1964, stopped a lot of sediment from moving downstream. The dam has also changed the Green’s natural water flows. So, the wild Yampa is valuable to the health of the Green, delivering sediment and more natural flows to the lower stretch of the river and beyond.
We climb out of the rafts and hike up the sandstone to a viewpoint. Watch videos of Matt Rice, Colorado conservation director for American Rivers, describing the difference between the Green and the Yampa, and hear why he thinks Echo Park is a special place.
John Wesley Powell camped here in 1869 during his historic exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers. Watch a video of Kent Vertrees with Friends of the Yampa reading from Powell’s journals, and hear the echo for yourself!
Downstream from Echo Park we float down the Green through canyons of blocky dark red Uinta formation rock, capped with the thin pancake pink rock of the Lodore formation.
Against the dark red, it’s easy to spot the silvery wood of an old ladder, propped against the canyon wall. Surveyors left the ladder here in the 1950’s, studying sites for dams that would have drowned Echo Park and Dinosaur National Monument. The fight over these dams is one of the best known battles in river conservation.
I’ve been reading Kevin Fedarko’s new book The Emerald Mile, and he describes the victory won by the Sierra Club’s David Brower when the proposed Dinosaur dams were struck down – and the tradeoffs:
“For Brower and his colleagues, this victory marked a watershed moment in the politics of conservation. For the first time ever, a powerful coalition of federal bureaucrats and their allies had been bested by a band of “punks,” as one cabinet official had derisively dubbed the conservationists. But while all of this seemed to offer ample case for celebration, the victory had come at a steep price. At the center of the compromise to which Brower agreed was a dam that was slated to be built on the Colorado River fifteen miles upstream from the Grand Canyon… The dam’s reservoir would inundate a little-known river corridor called Glen Canyon, which was not part of any park or monument. Whatever wonders that obscure canyon might contain, it had never received federal protection of any kind… By agreeing to the compromise, Brower had, in effect, traded away something he had never seen on the assumption that it could not possibly match the value of what he was trying to save. This, as he was about to discover, was a terrible mistake.”
The old ladder stands as a reminder of how easy it is to lose something wild, and how important it is to protect special places before it’s too late.
Not many Americans are familiar with the Yampa, but we aim to change that. This river is not only a treasure of the Colorado Basin, it’s a national treasure as well.
Over the course of this trip we’ve had many good discussions around the campfire at night and in the rafts during the day. While we come from different organizations and agencies and have different goals and perspectives, I know we all agree that the wild Yampa is a unique and special place. This trip brought us together, and there is no doubt we’ll continue to work together to figure out the best strategy for ensuring the Yampa stays wild for generations to come.
Big thanks to Friends of the Yampa, George Wendt and OARS, Kent Vertrees and Matt Rice, our guides Bruce, Russell, Kate, Jules, Pat and John, and everybody who participated in this trip. It was a privilege being on the river with you!
Help restore water to the Colorado River by joining Change the Course. Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.